Before talking about the show, it’s worth mentioning that the Old Naval College‘s architecture is the very definition of Dickensian. It is a World Heritage Site after all. The Painted Hall, home to this brand new adaptation of Mr Dickens’ most famous work, is not your average performance space either. It is an opulent 18th Century ceremonial dining room impeccably decorated in the Italian Baroque style by artist Sir James Thornhill, a task that took him almost twenty years by all accounts. Almost 200 scenes spectacularly adorn an epic high ceiling. Your reviewer heard more than one audible gasp as audience members raised their eyes to take it in. It is a simple joy to be in such a beautiful place before the show even starts. There is, of course, a danger any performance will play second fiddle to its surroundings in such circumstances. Fortunately, there is not a bit of that here. This pacey hour-long adaptation of everyone’s favourite tale of personal redemption feels very much at home.
There may actually be a second fiddle in the show. Or a third or fourth! I had spotted guitars, an accordion, a saxophone, keyboards, a cello, percussion and a trumpet before losing count. Instruments literally litter the stage to be picked up and put to good use whenever the show requires it. Rich, layered impeccably performed original music is the beating heart of the performance. Melodies rise and fall, enhanced by the room’s acoustics and irresistible harmonies.
There’s a glorious mix of songs and styles from a touch of country to high church choral music. Only a rap for Fezziwig felt out of place, a bit too much like your dad trying to be cool for the kids. This was mercifully short though and quickly turned into a more satisfying traditional jig. Will Dollard and Mary Erskine deserve huge credit for penning the music and lyrics. You might well hum one or two of their tunes on the way home. Rob Gathercole, musical director as well as cast member, is clearly a major talent too. There are times it feels like theatre combined with the concert hall. Quality stuff.
When they aren’t producing beautiful music, each member of the cast of five throws themselves into Matt Borgatti’s book with huge amounts of skill and charm. The text shows appropriate reverence to the source material without ever feeling po-faced or stuffy. Scrooge (Mia Jerome), pleasingly, foregoes actorly tones to sound a resolutely local South London grump. A very deceased Jacob Marley (Matt Burns) takes the narrator role with the stylings of your favourite goth band lead singer. The story has been adapted so it all takes place during a Christmas Eve carol concert in, you guessed it, The Painted Hall itself. Some songs are given hymn numbers. The three ghosts are welcomed as soloists. It’s a device I’m not sure adds much frankly but, before we can worry about such things too much, we are whisked off to enjoy another song. The evening is laced with humour too. There is one wicked gag about Tiny Tim that is genuinely worth the ticket price alone.
Talking of Tiny Tim, God Bless him, he is brought alive by some inspired heartwarming puppetry. The design work from Oliver Hymans, Valeriya Voronkina and Jess Shead is strong throughout – perfectly in keeping with the location and period.
You have a myriad of choices if you want to see A Christmas Carol this festive season. However, I can’t imagine you’ll find a production as pleasing to the ears, or the eyes, as Goblin Theatre’s take-over of the Painted Hall. Ask Santa for a ticket, you won’t regret it.
Written by: Charles Dickens
Directed by: Andy Barry
Music & Lyrics by: Will Dollard & Mary Erskine
Book by: Matt Borgatti
Musical Direction by: Rob Gathercole
Produced by: Matt Borgatti & Goblin Theatre
A Christmas Carol plays at the Old Royal Naval College until 23 December. Further information and booking via the below link.